A Living Wage for a Living Tree?
Religion & Liberty Online

A Living Wage for a Living Tree?

The Ballors went with a live tree this year. We bought it at Flowerland and I do not know the name of the farm whence it came.

Over at the American Conservative, Micah Mattix reflects on the Christmas tree market, which in his neck of the woods is “notoriously unstable.” In Ashe County, North Carolina, says Mattix, a dilemma faces the small tree farmer: “It is not sell or starve, but it is sell or go without a new septic tank, a repaired roof, a mended this or that.” Although not specifically about Christmas trees, the difficult choice faced by the poet in the Robert Frost poem Mattix engages at length is also reminiscent of the dynamic of poverty in Winter’s Bone.

Mattix explores some valid concerns about the human cost of low prices: “When we look for ‘deals’ at Christmas, I doubt many of us think about the labor another human being expended to make a certain object and whether the price we pay for it is a fair one. We think, rather, of big corporations and highly paid CEOs who can afford a dollar to two less and who have probably already calculated the discount into the cost of production.”

In the context of a market transaction, particularly in a globalized marketplace where we cannot possibly know all the people that have been involved in bringing a commodity to market, there is a kind of anonymity that is inherent in the system. Thus, writes Mattix, “But an anonymous market economy can obscure the relational aspect of trade—it can obscure the fact that transactions are always, ultimately, between people. And when we look to buy objects for as little as possible without any consideration of the labor of others, we are acting no differently than CEOs who look to maximize profit, whatever the human expense.” Perhaps. Perhaps.

We might observe that the buyers of the Christmas trees also faces dilemmas…maybe not between going without a new septic tank or fixing a roof, but certainly with the prospect of fewer presents underneath the tree or fewer dishes to pass around the Christmas dinner table. And in some cases, a deal on a Christmas tree might actually mean the difference between having a live tree at all.

This is in large part what motivates the buyer to seek the lowest prices, “whatever the human expense.” The buyer knows best and most personally his or her own “human expense,” and trusts that the seller has entered into the agreement willingly, having counted his or her own cost in bringing the tree to market. Much of this calculation is represented in the price function, just as the impact of supply and demand influence prices. The buyer, in reality, often has no practical way other than prices to make a basis for judgment.

It may be that the instability inherent in the Christmas tree market make it a less than ideal undertaking for smaller enterprises that cannot withstand fluctuations. But these seasonally influenced prices may also lead tree farmers to innovate, to offer different kinds of products, to offer other added value.

I think that Mattix is right that there is an obligation on the part of economic actors to use money “to the extent that they are able, to nourish the relational element of trade rather than undermine it.” There certainly is a critical place for conscientious consumption and beyond that, charitable activity to ameliorate the suffering of those who do not thrive in the market context.

Perhaps those who are already in relationship with the seller are the ones who have the greater moral weight upon them to provide whatever aid is necessary. Does the buyer, through the act of purchasing, somehow become responsible for the welfare of the seller? Perhaps so. But the obligation of mutual aid that attends to this kind of relationship seems far more superficial than that which attends to those who have deeper and previously established relationships with the seller. And just how can you be morally responsible for addressing needs you have no practical way of knowing exist?

Is all this an argument for buying local trees from farmers that we know? Perhaps. Perhaps. But practically defining the extent that we are really able to know all these things other than implicitly through the price mechanism seems more than a bit quixotic.

I recall living in Virginia with my mother in a trailer, and the tree that we would have each Christmas would be a Norfolk Island Pine, the closest you can get to a living Charlie Brown tree. We would buy these trees because you could keep them alive for more than one year, and so they could be re-used and would provide some aesthetic value for the rest of the year.

Speaking of innovation in the tree market, this also reminds me of an episode of Shark Tank in which the purveyor of a company that rented live trees was trying to convince the sharks to invest in his company. The owner employed veterans, and made a strong pitch about the value added from live trees, particularly with regard to environmental impact. Combined with the socially-conscious appeal of providing jobs for veterans, the owner had a convincing pitch.

So one answer to the instability of the tree market is to shake things up. If you can’t make a living selling Christmas trees, then your responsibility is to change your business model. Alter your product. Transform the market. Innovate so that you can provide for yourself and your family. Be an entrepreneur.

And if all this leaves you simply wanting an artificial tree this year, then Dinesh D’Souza has a deal for you.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.